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Sanford, sex and Maria: A case study in damaging damage control

July 2, 2009 |  8:08 pm

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford talking to the Associated Press about his love affair with Argentina's Maria Belen Chapur

Didja hear the story of the teenager who approaches his mother with a small cut on his finger?

Well, how'd you get that? she asks, reaching for the disinfectant.

From the glass, he says.

What glass? she asks calmly.

From the windshield.

The what?! says the startled mother.

It shattered.

What? Why?

In the big traffic accident.

What big traffic accident?

The one with all the cars and trucks. At the fire.

At what? Where?

The big explosion.

Wait, I don't....

We were all trying to avoid the stampeding elephants.

And on and on. Does this remind anyone of a particular governor in recent days?

The basic rule of political damage control is: Get it all out yourself fast and accurately. No loose ends. No stretchers, as Mark Twain would say. Take your hard hit one, maybe....

...two days, and then try to move on. Or act like it anyway. Apologize sincerely. Then, see if you can move on or skate by.

South Carolina's Republican Gov. Mark Sanford violated each one of those provisions, which certainly doomed his political future and will probably short-circuit what's left of his current term.

It is, let it be said, a sad personal story for all involved, even if some magazine offers a million pesos for the other woman to pose nude. It's a classic human tale of love and betrayal and secrets and sex. Sympathies to everyone involved as millions of self-appointed jurors pass judgment on these total strangers and not, of course, on their own private treacheries.

But we're looking at the politics of it. And the fact that they unfolded like the teenager's story is what created the worst of the professional mess for Sanford, thought by some to be a possible 2012 GOP presidential contender. Nothing newly bad or illegal happened. But what had already happened dribbled out. Big mistake.

It began as a goofy obvious misunderstanding with staff word that he was off clearing his head hiking in the woods. OK. He's a little strange. Democrats took advantage of his absence to quickly connect that weekend with Naked Hiking Day. Haha. And jokes filled the Twittersphere.

But then his wife, Jenny, said she didn't know where he was, which seemed odd on Father's Day weekend. Remember, The State newspaper in Columbia had a selection of unpublished, unverified romantic e-mails between the governor and a "Maria"  in Argentina.

So its reporter began watching passengers arriving in Atlanta from Buenos Aires. And bingo, there came the gov, who to his credit did not duck into the men's room. He candidly talked with the reporter, providing the first wave of revelations: He hadn't been hiking at all. He was on another continent. With another woman.

Then followed his huSouth Carolina First Lady Jenny Sanfordrriedly staged, rambling, occasionally incoherent confessional news conference here. He'd misled his own staff, dodged his own security, abandoned any official duties.

And then hours later his wife's separation statement and her knowledge of the affair, which was, in an attempt at marital repair, to have ended before this latest trip.

And then the next-day word that state money may have been involved in some travel. Sanford promised to repay. (UPDATE: State officials have cleared the governor of improper use of state funds for travel to visit the mistress.)

And Sanford's moral hypocrisy of doing all this after calling on Bill Clinton to resign over Monica Lewinski.

But then Michael Jackson dies and sucks all the air out of the illicit Argentinian Affair and the smoking Latina divorcee who speaks three or four languages. Public case closed?

Uh, no. A fresh week dawns. And a troubled Sanford grants another interview. Well, it seems over the years there had been other women, and Maria was his soul mate, yada yada. All of which is sad and may be true and personally cathartic. And pathetic in many eyes.

But, politically, as the recently late Billy Mays would have so succinctly put it, Ka-BOOM!

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credits: Mary Ann Chastain / Associated Press; Associated Press (Jenny Sanford).

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